I just finished reading E.O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth. Written as it was for an educated yet not academically minded audience it is hardly surprising that I didn't learn much new from the book. Nevertheless, it should serve as a handy reference for teaching in the future and I found it refreshing to see the multi-level selection approach so forcefully promoted even if, in some places, I believe Wilson overstated the case. Unfortunately, Wilson makes a number of unwarranted and poorly informed attacks against religion. In the future, I may take each of these in turn. For the moment, however, I'd like to comment on one in particular since it touches on my own research.
Wilson makes a number of impassioned pleas toward the end of the book about the critical juncture the human species finds itself at. As might be expected from a biologist, his loudest cries are for the state of the environment:
Sure one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have.
That's certainly a moral precept I can agree on and one that I feel rather strongly about as well. However, Wilson goes on to say:
It will be useful in taking a second look at science and religion to understand the true nature of the search for objective truth. Science is not just another enterprise like medicine or engineering or theology. It is the wellspring of all the knowledge we have of the real world that can be tested and fitted into preexisting knowledge. It is the arsenal of technologies and inferential mathematics needed to distinguish the true from the false. It formulates the principles and formulas that tie all this knowledge together. Science belongs to everybody. Its constituent parts can be challenged by anybody in the world who has sufficient information to do so. It is not just "another way of knowing" as often claimed, making it coequal with religious faith. The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religions is irreconcilable. The chasm will continue to widen and cause no end of trouble as long as religious leaders go on making unsupportable claims about supernatural causes of reality.
To put this into better perspective, Wilson just a few paragraphs earlier said:
Why, then, is it wise openly to question the myths and gods of organized religion? Because they are stultifying and divisive. Because each is just one version of a competing multitude of scenarios that possibly can be true. Because they encourage ignorance, distract people from recognizing problems of the real world, and often lead them in wrong directions into disastrous actions.
So now we get to the heart of my objection. As I read it, Wilson is essentially trying to lay the blame for environmental degradation at the feet of religion. Moreover, he suggests that the only antidote to the destructive nature of religion's superstition is the cold rationality of the scientific enterprise.
This is particularly obnoxious to me because I have been working for the past year and a half on a project with some of Lin Ostrom's students that looks specifically at the relationship between religion and the management of natural resources. We still have two more cases to code before we begin our analysis. Nevertheless, it is clear from the 48 cases that we've looked at so far that religion has traditionally had extremely important roles to play in the sustainable use of resources. For instance, religion often serves to define the physical boundaries of resources and marks those who are allowed to use them. Religion serves monitoring functions and imposes sanctions for those who break the rules. It also is an important source of perceived benefits that encourage users to cooperate with others. Religion provides opportunities for leadership, repositories of local knowledge, calendars to coordinate cooperative efforts and avenues for the establishment and maintenance of social capital. To say that religion in this context is "stultifying and divisive" is plain and simply wrong. It is both highly innovative and creative and it leads to greater cooperation for an enterprise that is notoriously difficult.
Now, I can hear the objections already that religion is hardly necessary to provide these services. This is a fair point. Indeed, many groups do use secular alternatives to great effect. Furthermore, many groups that we've studied employ a mixture of religious and secular mechanisms to govern their resources sustainably. Nevertheless, the fact that religion is providing these vital functions should alone be enough to give us pause about actively working to undermine them. At least it should give us pause if our primary goal is really better stewardship of the planet. Religious means of encoding culturally important information may not be rational in the sense that Wilson and others understand that term. They certainly weren't arrived at through a deliberate process of empirical research checked through peer review. For that matter they often probably didn't arise as deliberate conservation efforts in the first place. Many of them, however, have been in use for centuries and, as such, have been subjected to generations of cultural evolution which has produced finely tuned institutions, exquisitely sensitive to local environmental contexts. Surely if biologists can't place any credence on supernatural entities and superstitious articulations of the way the world works they can at least give some respect for systems refined through natural selection!
Finally, religion is hardly unique in its ability "to distract people from recognizing problems of the real world," nor is it alone in leading "them in wrong directions into disastrous actions." Time and again we have found cases in our work where the leading cause of the breakdown in sustainable resource management by user groups can be traced to either the privatization of the resource in question or, more often, to the usurpation of local user rights through nationalization. In this latter case, national governments take over control of resources, eliminating any semblance of local autonomy and denying local users any collective choice rights to determine the rules they are expected to follow. The results of this kind of policy are almost universally disastrous, leading to rapid environmental degradation.
And where did these policy notions come from? It was decidedly not from the world's religions. Rather, it came from western scientists and scholars whose thinking was summarized so concisely and compellingly in Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons. This represents policy based on rational thought and enjoying strong empirical support from modeling studies and laboratory experiments. In short, it represents exactly the sort of approach that Wilson touts as being inherently superior to the "unsupportable claims" of religious leaders. It also happens to be completely and disastrously wrong as Elinor Ostrom's work has shown, work for which she earned a Nobel Prize. I only hope that the damage caused by such superior, rational thinking can be repaired before it's too late for us all.